The Pike's Peak practice times for France's Sébastien Loeb and his very special Peugeot 208 T16 hillclimber have been so phenomenal that experts are saying he might be the first competitor at America's second oldest motorsport event to go under nine minutes around last year's shortened course. 

The current record is 9.46.164, set in the Time Attack class. competitors ran last year on a shortened course set-up last year because snow clogged the top part of the course. This year the course is clear, and will be longer. Loeb's special car, bristling with Le Mans technology and designed by the same team as made Peugeots endurance racers, seems to be producing high performance on a whole new scale.

The 12.24 mile course on public roads up 'America's Mountain' climbs from 9400ft to 14,100ft above the city of Colorado Springs, and this year entertains around 170 race teams from 19 countries. 

Cars practice in seven different classes - plus motorbikes - on the course in three split sections, before putting the whole lot together for the official runs on Sunday. For the second of them, Loeb has so far shaved around 17 seconds off his best rival's time. And this section includes hazards with names like Ragged Edge, Devil's Playground and Bottomless Pit, which was only fully sealed in the last few years.

The programme even contains praise for city mayor, Steve Bach, for 'taking the initiative to finish paving on the last couple of miles of the highway'.

The story we're hearing is that Loeb and the most serious drivers here have oxygen fed into their nostrils as they drive - we're halfway up Everest here - and the 208's electronics are configured so they know where it is on the climb and can adjust the fuel mixture to compensate for lessening atmospheric pressure. 

It's amazing to see how spectators arrange themselves, in traditionally risky WRC style, just a few feet off the road with the cars flashing past close enough to ruffle their clothing. There's surprisingly little marshalling for this age-old event, in a country that seems addicted, in other spheres, to health and safety.

Update...

Wow. Loeb just flashed by again. The way this T16 fires itself out of bends - the first  30-50 yards - is amazing. Traction seems completely out of the league of the rest. And the late braking. And the stability. Chuck in your WRC champ's unearthly ability to read the road and you have something really special.

Old hands say a car with 1000bhp at the bottom of this course will have 600bhp at the top... That power drop must be one reason why a really potent electric or electric assist car can get going well here.

The great virtue of a time trial like Pikes Peak, where you can get really close to the cars and there's no traffic, is that you can easily pick the really good drivers.

At our current three-corner eyrie, near the summit, overlooking a really difficult asymmetrical hairpin, the best drivers trail-brake right into the jaws of a bend, yet not quite late enough to understeer off line, then fire out just ahead of the apex carrying lots more speed into the next one, inevitably only 100-200 yards away.

Neatest and best? Loeb, but there are other good drivers, notably a Yank in a classic short Quattro, another in a Ford RS200. There's also a terrifically fast old-shape Camaro V8, and an excellent Japanese driver (much better than various other Toyota jockeys) in a hot GT86. 

Stay tuned to Autocar.co.uk for all the latest from Pikes Peak